Section II: Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency Has an Effective System in Place for Responding to Requests
As the Attorney General emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines, "[a]pplication of the proper disclosure standard is only one part of ensuring transparency. Open government requires not just a presumption of disclosure, but also an effective system for responding to FOIA requests." It is essential that agencies effectively manage their FOIA program.
Please answer the following questions to describe the steps your agency has taken to ensure that your management of your FOIA program is effective and efficient. You should also include any additional information that describes your agency's efforts in this area.
In the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines, OIP asked agencies about the status of converting all eligible FOIA professionals to the new Government Information Series. If your agency reported that its staff was eligible for conversion but had not yet converted all professionals to the new series, what is the current proportion of personnel that have been converted?
Ninety-eight percent of the FOIA staff within the Department have been converted to the Government Information Series (0306), with less than 2% remaining in other position series.
If your agency has not converted all of its eligible employees yet, what is your plan to ensure that all FOIA professionals’ position descriptions are converted?
ACL FOIA professionals do not conduct their FOIA duties on a full-time basis, as the current volume of FOIA requests submitted to ACL is quite low. ACL currently quantifies their FOIA request volume as requiring 1/10 of a full time employee (FTE). Therefore, ACL believes that these two employees’ position classifications should continue to reflect their primary duties.
HRSA will complete the process of converting the one remaining staffer to the Government Information Specialist classification within the 2015 fiscal year.
For Fiscal Year 2014, what was the average number of days your agency reported for adjudicating requests for expedited processing? Please see Section VIII.A. of your agency's Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report.
The average time for the Department to adjudicate expedited processing requests was 12 days. OS, ACF, CDC, CMS, FDA, HRSA, NIH, OIG and SAMSHA received requests for expedited processing. ACL, IHS and the PSC did not adjudicate any requests for expedited processing.
If your agency's average number of days to adjudicate requests for expedited processing was above ten calendar days, please describe the steps your agency will take to ensure that requests for expedited processing are adjudicated within ten calendar days or less.
Within the Department, all OpDivs with the exception of one had an average of ten calendar days or less to adjudicate expedited processing requests. CMS’ average was 17 days. CMS was in a state of transition during 2014, with four CMS FOIA staff members transferring to other HHS OpDivs during that year. CMS also has the largest volume of FOIA requests in the Department. CMS’ process is being enhanced by additional efforts to identify and separate the requests seeking expedited processing from the other incoming requests; thus enabling the FOIA intake processing team to create and forward proposed decision letters more efficiently to a separate inbox for signature authority.
If your agency has a decentralized FOIA process, has your agency taken steps to make the routing of misdirected requests within your agency more efficient? If so, please describe those steps.
Yes. As referenced in the agency’s response to Question 8, Section I, HHS’ FOIA operations are decentralized. OS receives FOIA requests for many of the OpDivs via the request form on its web page and has a system in place for forwarding those requests to the appropriate sub-agency. Also the HHS FOIA web site has direct links to all the OpDivs FOIA web sites, so that requesters can easily submit their requests to the different HHS OpDivs. While HHS has procedures in place to address misdirected requests, the Department’s OpDivs continue to work on making that process more efficient.
If your agency is already handling the routing of misdirected requests in an efficient manner, please note that here and describe your process for these requests.
Since HHS FOIA operations are decentralized, there are a variety of checks and balances which HHS utilizes to ensure that misdirected requests are re-routed in a timely manner to the appropriate program area, office, or component. These include using automated tracking systems to support the prompt return of misdirected requests, utilizing a network of program and contractor staff that function as FOIA coordinators\liaisons to assist in routing requests to the correct location, and electronically transmitting FOIA requests to the program areas.
Additionally, instructions and guidance are provided to the FOIA coordinators, liaisons, and gatekeepers who facilitate the processing of FOIA requests, requesting a prompt notification when a request should be routed to a different office or an additional office for records search. Other efforts include the development of subject matter indexes for use by both FOIA and non-FOIA staff, which will assist in having fewer misdirected requests.
Does your agency notify requesters of the mediation services offered by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration? See OIP Guidance, “Notifying Requesters of the Mediation Services Offered by OGIS." (July 9, 2010)
As advised by the Department of Justice, HHS provides this notification when responding to administrative FOIA Appeals. With Within the agency, OS, and CMS process FOIA appeals and these entities advise appellants regarding OGIS in the appeal decision letter. In addition, FDA notifies requesters about OGIS on an as-needed basis during the initial processing stage.
When assessing fees, does your agency provide a breakdown of how FOIA fees were calculated and assessed to the FOIA requester? For example, does your agency explain the amount of fees attributable to search, review, and duplication? See OIP Guidance, “The Importance of Good Communication with FOIA Requesters 2.0: Improving Both the Means and the Content of Requester Communications.” (Nov. 22, 2013)
HHS’ FOIA offices provide a fee breakdown by either a detailed invoice or other explanation or itemization to the requester.
If estimated fees estimates are particularly high, does your agency provide an explanation for the estimate to the requester? See id.
HHS’ FOIA Offices provide an explanation for large fee estimates. This is sometimes done via a prepayment fee letter (pursuant to HHS’ FOIA regulations at 45CFR §5.44) or by contacting the requester by telephone or email. This allows the requester to enter into a discussion with the agency regarding amending or narrowing the request, should the requester wish to limit costs.
If there are any other steps your agency has undertaken to ensure that your FOIA system operates efficiently and effectively, such as conducting self-assessments to find greater efficiencies, improving search processes, eliminating redundancy, etc., please describe them here.
OS has purchased FOIA Xpress software to replace its former tracking system, which will enable OS to receive requests, route requests for search, receive and store responsive records, and respond to the requesters electronically, thus adding significant efficiencies to the process.
ACF works closely with the record custodians on searches, and communicates information about FOIA timelines to the responding program area. When necessary, ACF will convene teleconferences with a requester and program office staff to get a common understanding of the most efficient way to obtain the most useful information. This strategy has been especially effective with very broad requests.
CDC’s management dedicated an expert to the FOIA Office to study practices and procedures associated with the database system and any other systemic problems that could be identified. As a result, the FOIA Office has initiated steps to ensure database continuity to allow for collection of metrics and to eliminate potential errors. Additionally, IT staff members were assigned to the FOIA Office to introduce new systems for effectively processing FOIA; the IT professionals also ensure that the database is running efficiently. Systems have been provided for electronically transferring responses to requesters, eliminating the need for CD-ROMs, and CDC is working toward a SharePoint or similar system for programs to transfer records to the FOIA Office for processing. Additionally, CDC is investigating software that will reduce the volume of records by de-duplication. CMS has engaged in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DOJ to use e-discovery software to improve search responses on FOIA litigation and to hone searches and de-duplicate information.
During FY 2014, 56% of FDA’s FOIA requests were submitted through the online form, which reduces certain administrative functions such as data entry, sending acknowledgement letters through the mail, and scanning request letters for assignment to components. Because online requesters must provide an email address, FDA is able to release records electronically via email. In addition, FDA’s administrative tracking, assignment and billing functions are centralized in DFOI, as are denials, fee waivers, requests for expedited processing, and appeals. Also, FDA uses an electronic tracking and document storage system, AIMS (Agency Information Management System), to assign requests to components for processing and to store released records. This speeds processing when records are requested again.
FDA components triage requests on receipt into the appropriate queue and generally use multi-track processing which capitalizes on the efficiencies of responding to simple requests quickly; larger, more complex requests (which require more search and review time) are answered on a first-in, first-out, basis within each queue and track. A request can be in more than one queue, so a partial response can be made for simpler parts of a request. In addition, a request can be moved to a different queue if consultation with a requester indicates that the request is simpler or more complex than first determined by FDA.
HRSA regularly conducts brainstorming sessions as part of staff meetings to identify ways, no matter how incremental, in which we can further streamline our processing of requests.
During the past year, IHS obtained the services of two part-time students/clerks to assist with such administrative functions as logging in new cases, sending out acknowledgement letters, and transmitting a request for records to the appropriate program office. This enables the FOIA staff to focus on the actual processing and review of each FOIA request and improves timeliness.
NIH has a very efficient and effective system for responding to requests. FOIA processing at NIH is decentralized. In addition to the central NIH FOIA Office, each NIH Institute and Center (IC) and several NIH Office of the Director components has its own FOIA requester Service Center staffed by a FOIA Professional with release authority. By having processing located directly at the IC level, the FOIA professionals have greater knowledge of the location of requested files, which decreases search time. Because the FOIA professionals and the Program Staff are colleagues within the same organizational component, there is greater cooperation in the review of any proposed redactions, which decreases review time.
The NIH FOIA Office has created a number of model letters for use by NIH FOIA professionals. This reduces processing time for FOIA professionals and ensures consistency across NIH. Redaction guides for frequently requested documents such as awarded research grant applications and contract documents also have been developed and distributed by the NIH FOIA Office. Both the model letters and the processing guides are available for download from the NIH FOIA website accessible by NIH staff and can be linked to from the NIH FOIA Tracking System, which is maintained by the NIH FOIA Office. These resources are reviewed quarterly and revised as necessary.
This year, the NIH FOIA Tracking System was upgraded and several time-saving features were added. Many fields and one report are now auto-filled with saved information. The entire tracking process can be completed electronically.
OIG annually surveys frequent FOIA requesters asking them to provide positive and negative feedback, as well as suggestions for making their experience easier and/or faster.
SAMHSA has weekly discussions that are focused on identifying and discussing innovative ways to raise awareness about FOIA. PSC reviews FOIA appeals upon behalf of several different HHS OpDivs: AHRQ, OASH, CDC, FDA, HRSA, HIS, NIH and SAMHSA. OS is responsible for the final decision on all agency FOIA appeals.
- Section I: Steps Taken to Apply the Presumption of Openness
- Section II: Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency Has an Effective System in Place for Responding to Requests
- Section III: Steps Taken to Increase Proactive Disclosures
- Section IV: Steps Taken to Greater Utilize Technology
- Section V: Steps Taken to Improve Timeliness in Responding to Requests and Reduce Backlogs